Wednesbury riots, 1743-1744

The Wednesbury society, established in 1742, was known as 'the mother society of Staffordshire Methodism' and included members from Darlaston, Walsall and West Bromwich. Charles Wesley preached there in the autumn of 1742 and John Wesley followed in January 1743 - the first of 33 visits between then and 1789. The vicar, the Rev. Edward Egginton, (1698-1743), was at first friendly and supportive, until injudicious criticisms of the vicar by the itinerant preachers, Thomas Williams, a Welsh Local Preacher and former Dissenter, along with a Mr Graves, who were the preachers looking after the developing Wednesbury Society. At the time throughout England there was unrest because of the threatened invasion by the French. England had been at war with Spain, France’s ally since 1739. By 1743 England and France was in a state of de facto war. In January 1743 King Louis XV of France formally declared war on England, planning to reinstate the exiled Roman Catholic James Edward Stuart as King James III. In February 1744 a large French invasion fleet left Dunkirk for England. The weather turned and violent storms drove the fleet back to French sheltered harbours. John Wesley writing in his Journal for 7 February 1744 about the Wednesbury riots said: “(Had the French come… would they have done more ?).”

In the Derby Mercury newspaper and Aris’s Birmingham Gazette on Monday 13 February 1744 there was a report that ‘For some Months past Mr. Wesley, his Brother, and some other itinerant Preachers, have visited Wednesbury in the County of Stafford, which at different times occasioned Disturbances and Skirmishes; but no great Mischief was done before last Tuesday’ (Shrove Tuesday 7 February 1744). The first skirmish was on 21 May 1743.

When Charles Wesley returned to Wednesbury on 20 May 1743 he found that ‘the seed had taken root and that many are added to the church’. The Society numbered over 300. On Saturday 21 May Charles and several brethren sang as they walked to Walsall some four and a half miles north east of Wednesbury, where they were met with a hostile crowd shouting: “Behold, they that turn the world upside down are come here also” (Acts 17:6). Above the noise of the rioters Charles Wesley responded preaching on the Market-house steps quoting Paul’s farewell to the Ephesians, Acts 20:24 “But none of these things move me; neither count I my life dear unto myself, so that I might finish my course with joy, and the ministry which I have received of the Lord Jesus, to testify the Gospel of the grace of God.” The rioters threw stones at Charles Wesley and as he attempted to walk down the steps three times ruffians threw him to the ground. On each occasion on getting up Wesley gave a blessing and bid them go in peace. As John Wesley rode towards Wednesbury on 18 June he was acutely aware of the attacks against the Methodist people, commenting in his Journal that the “zealous High-Churchmen” hearing the rantings against the Methodists from the pulpit and the episcopal chair “had rose up and cut all that were called Methodists in pieces.” John Wesley sought advice from counsellor Edward Littleton who said that they had a case in law to prosecute rebels against “God and the King.” On 20 Octoberh 1743 John Wesley returned to Wednesbury and preached to a large and peaceful crowd. In the afternoon he went to John Ward’s house. Before long a mob stood outside but soon disappeared only to return with even more miscreants shortly before 5pm calling for the minister. Wesley was taken by the mob to Bentley Hall to see Mr John Lane (1699-1748), who told them to take Mr Wesley back. A second and larger mob arrived and John Lane’s son Thomas Lane (1703-1775) told them to be quiet and go home. The mob took John Wesley to Reynolds Hall, Walsall, to see Justice Persehouse (1691-1749). He was in bed so the Darlaston mob and John Wesley began to return from whence they had come only to be met be a rival mob from Walsall. John Wesley tried to reason with the Walsall mob who were manhandling him. Many called out “Knock his brains out, down with him, kill him at once.” A remarkably brave woman defending Wesley from the mob was knocked to the ground and three men kept pinned her to the floor whilst others beat her. Had George Clifton (1704- 1789) better known as the coalminer prize-fighter Honest Munchin not told them to stop the woman would have been killed. Charles Wesley went to Nottingham to meet his brother John and wrote in his Journal for Friday 21 October 1743. “My brother came, delivered out of the mouth of the lion. He looked like a soldier of Christ. His clothes were torn to tatters. The mob at Wednesbury, Darlaston and Walsall, were permitted to take him by the night out of the Society-house, and carry him with full purpose to murder him."

Many examples of the attacks on the Methodist people were recorded by John Wesley. These include the incident when John Eaton, the Constable whilst reading the Riot Act had his house damaged and all his windows, door and clock broken. The same happened to Jos Stubbs and his wife was so frightened that she miscarried. Roofs were damaged and many homes of Methodist people were plundered. Widow Elizabeth Lingham who had five children had her goods and spinning wheel broken. The collier Valentine Ambersly had his house damaged twice and his wife ‘big with child’ was abused and beaten with clubs. Belatedly the authorities were alerted and the storm of persecution subsided. In answer to charges that the Methodists had instigated the violence, Wesley published a detailed account of events, Modern Christianity exemplified at Wednesbury... (1745)

  • John Wesley, Journal, 15 Apr & 20 Oct 1743
  • S. Lees, in WHS Proceedings, 4 pp.153-59, 198-200
  • J. Leonard Waddy, The Bitter Sacred Cup: the Wednesbury Riots 1743-44 (Bognor Regis, 1976)
  • Charles H. Goodwin, A Dismal Notoriety: the rise and progress of Methodism at Wednesbury (Cannock, 1994)
  • Charles H. Goodwin, 'Vile or Reviled? The causes of the anti-Methodist riots at Wednesbury … in the light of New England revivalism', in Methodist History, 35:1 (October 1996) pp. 14-27

See also

Entry written by: DHR and JAV
Category: Place
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